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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
Moving beyond case analysis to writing case studies in teaching strategic management

Peter Galvin
Curtin University of Technology
John Rice
University of Adelaide

Analysing case studies is a common teaching technique in many management related subjects and writing case studies is a logical extension of such an approach. The benefits of case writing include the ability of students to better understand the true complexity of many business scenarios, to appreciate the interrelationships that exist between different concepts and to deepen their learning on the basis that case writing builds upon higher order learning principles. Student satisfaction results for case writing are provided, highlighting the attractiveness of such an approach.


Introduction

Analysing case studies is an important part of many management courses. Often assessment items involve asking students to analyse a case and develop an outline of their preferred direction both in terms of what they think should be done and how such an approach could best be implemented. At the graduate level, cases are often an integral part of the teaching method, using a case-based teaching method made famous as the dominant pedagogy in teaching MBA (Master of Business Administration) students within Harvard Business School. However, analysis can take students only so far. After all, "if experience is the best teacher, what better way to learn ... than by writing a teaching case" (Barnes, Christensen and Hansen, 1994: 285).

Writing case studies immerses students into the complexity of business where multiple perspectives, imperfect data, and numerous issues that all require resolving need to be appreciated. Analysing existing written cases tends to provide students with a limited range of perspectives and the material tends to be written with a focus on just one or two issues (due to space considerations). In comparison, writing case studies exposes students to the true complexities of business. Additionally, writing an answer guide for the case study provides a theoretical underpinning to the material. The answer guide ensures that students understand the relevant theory to different scenarios, and because there is rarely a single theory that can be used, the students are also more likely to visibly see the links that exist between different theoretical frameworks.

The aim of this paper is to outline the benefits that accrue to students in terms of their learning from having them write their own case studies and corresponding answer guides. In addition, we review the success of the process in an MBA capstone course, including those areas that continue to be problematic for students. Throughout this paper we use examples from our own experiences in using case writing as an assessment tool. As instructors who teach in the field of strategic management, we naturally use strategy-oriented examples and discuss our ideas in terms of writing strategy-focused cases.

The use of case studies

Cases are popular teaching and assessment tools within business education. In terms of student learning, case studies were rated as the most effective way to determine learning, as well as being the most commonly used technique (Michlitsch & Sidle, 2002). The basic strength of case studies are that they involve a complex layering of information about real scenarios that allow students to "sharpen their analytical skills" in what are often complex and involved situations (Hammond, 2002). Given their complexity, a systems framework may be useful to appreciate all of the different elements of a highly detailed case. The systemic nature of many business subjects (especially strategy) requires an eye for the interdependence of seemingly independent phenomena to fully comprehend the scenario.

In this systems-oriented approach, the students' role is to de-layer, sectionalise and dissect the case with an aim to analyse, question and problem-solve in a complex world where there are rarely clear and unambiguous interrelationships between key elements of the case (Bonoma, 1989) - yet being mindful that the whole of a situation is more than the sum of the parts. Complexity, incomplete information and complicated interrelationships thus often characterise some of the best cases. As such, problem-solving skills and the ability to take large amounts of information and deconstruct this material to assess what is important and what is largely immaterial, is a desired outcome of most who place the case study method at the core of their teaching approach. Certainly Smith's (1987) review of the empirical research concerning case method teaching shows that there is strong (though not entirely conclusive) support regarding the relationship between the use of case-based teaching and improvements in students' problem-solving capabilities.

While these aspects of case analysis make it a useful approach, it nevertheless has numerous limitations. They are still simplified representations of the real world that may not fully expose the complex systems present within the scenario depicted. While others (e.g. McCarthy & McCarthy, 2006) have recognised such weaknesses and called for experiential learning approaches, we suggest that moving towards writing case studies is a significant step forward where true experiential approaches such as internships and job shadowing are not appropriate options.

Why students should write cases

Most MBA classes require students to analyse cases in many of the different subjects taught. Why therefore would an instructor go against the dominant pedagogy and introduce a far more complex and difficult task into the mix? The basic answer is that case writing, as opposed to case analysis, takes the learning to a new level.

The evidence however for this is terribly scant. A few papers have considered writing case studies as an assessment tool in the management discipline (e.g. Hafler, 1991; Jennings, 1997; Patti, 1992; Peleso, 1998), but each of these have considered alternative issues such as how to do it (i.e. write a case), what it should look like, or why case writing requires a systems perspective. No papers have looked specifically at the benefits of case writing. In many respects things is perhaps not surprising as papers concerning the benefits of specific assessment approaches have only been found to exist in respect of simulations and case analyses. Obviously there are a multitude of other approaches available and thus it will take time and a range of studies before the relative benefits of case writing are resolved. As such, this is a first pass at the perceived benefits of case writing by students and reflects upon our experiences with students taking classes where case writing was a significant part of the assessment within the course.

Understanding complexities and interrelationships

As described previously, cases tend to be complex, multi-layered, in-depth descriptions of events and decisions within a particular organisation or industry. Nevertheless, every case is still just an abbreviated summary of a multitude or various events and decisions. Due to space limitations, each case writer must make a decision as to what information to include and what information to leave out. As most cases are designed to be used in a limited number of ways, the result is that the case writer makes a conscious decision to restrict the information they place in the case to that which is necessary to (a) understand the case in terms of its history and the context in which it operates, and (b) to engage students in a discussion or debate that is centred around a limited set of issues or frameworks (Hafler, 1991).

Because cases are restricted in their content, they rarely capture the true complexity of real life. Therefore, the first reason as to why students should write cases themselves is that they are introduced to the true complexity of many business scenarios. That is, students are not already pushed by the case writer along a particular pathway. Rather they have to decide upon the appropriate pathway (i.e. what to cover and what to leave out) themselves. For example, in the field of strategy, the student has to decide what are the most important factors that are driving the performance of the company (be it good or bad). To be able to determine which factors are central to the organisation's current performance the students' require a detailed knowledge of the entire organisation, its history, competitive environment and its history in terms of key activities and key decisions. Analysis of a written case simply requires students to scrutinise an existing set of issues and interrelationships. Writing a case requires a much deeper understanding of the organisation and its environment as the largest challenge is putting together a mental model of what factors drive performance and therefore what needs to be included within the case.

Cases invariably simplify the real world. They purposely leave out important information that potentially has an impact upon what can or cannot be done. Because of this, the relationships that exist between different aspects of the case cannot be investigated. Leaving out important information is necessary as there are space limitations (even for the longest of cases) and also to reduce the complexity of the case. For example, in the strategy field, many of the cases skim over key issues to do with the management styles of key personnel, their relationships and their inherent biases. This is not unexpected as strategy courses tend to focus upon the more macro issues such as industry structure and key resources. Nevertheless, the actual people involved have a significant impact. For example, the owners of companies rarely like to limit their degree of influence in the company and thus bringing in professional managers may simply be unrealistic. Often cases expect students to work within a rational framework and thus removing information about key people (and the political dimension that they can bring to the case) is just one way of ensuring that this occurs. However, this sort of information is not the only type of information left out (or bias that is introduced). In reality, a range of issues are purposely ignored in writing up cases, meaning case analysis can take the student only so far in exposing them to the intricacies of business decisions.

In comparison, writing a case ensures that students are exposed to the true complexity of business scenarios. They are rarely neat, nor do they draw upon a very limited number of issues. In researching past decisions and the present state of the organisation, students are able to see just how many factors have impacted upon the 'strategic' direction of the firm at one point in time or another. Only in facing this complexity do they start to appreciate the systems perspective that pertains to business - particularly the field of strategy (Jennings, 1997). That said, it is important to note that while students are exposed to this complexity in the case writing process, like all other cases, their final product will also be a simplified version of reality with important information neglected as part of the process of making the case study accessible and focused (in relation to certain theoretical frameworks).

Application and synthesis of knowledge

Related to this point is the second reason why students should write case studies - the process of writing cases requires a much greater depth of knowledge of how various theoretical concepts might actually work than the knowledge required to simply apply these concepts in a relatively abstract manner to an existing case. We liken the difference in knowledge requirements to the difference between taking a class (as a student) and the amount of knowledge gained, relative to teaching a class in the same subject and how much knowledge of the subject would be required in this instance. When we explain to our MBA classes why the final assignment will be to write a case rather than to simply analyse a case we use the taking a class versus teaching a class analogy. Many of our MBA students have had experiences themselves as teachers in various capacities. A large number of these have commented to us at the end of the course that our analogy was very true. When they did a case analysis, even a detailed written analysis as one of their earlier assignments, they thought that they understood the material relatively well. However, when they actually came to write a case themselves and had to research an organisation, understand the linkages between different activities of the firm and determine what angle would best allow them to explain what drove performance in this unique organisation, there came an understanding that they simply did not attain from their earlier work.

We posit that one of the principal reasons for this is that our course in strategic management (like most MBA strategy courses) tends to teach a variety of frameworks in a way that does not stress the interdependence and interrelationships that often exist. We teach one or more cases that focus upon one framework (such as industry structure) and then we choose another set of cases where we can illustrate the importance of another framework (e.g. resources and capabilities). We tend to under-emphasise linkages between frameworks and topics, and often fail to inform students as to how strategy is a big picture, systems oriented subject, where interactions between what seem to relatively independent elements are in fact often very important. When students come to write their own cases, they quickly come to see how the various frameworks must all be considered and not treated independently as a list to tick off as each one is applied in isolation.

Cases as learning by doing

The point above suggests that students should write cases because of the depth of knowledge required. Building upon this is our third reason as to why students should write cases - the learning effects are maximised when students move away from rote learning based tasks/assessments, and engage in deep learning that forms the basis for students developing their own mental models concerning how different constructs interrelate. And writing cases is a classic case of learning by doing.

Adult learners are likely to recall material best when they discuss it with others or personally experience the issue (Biggs, 1999). Writing a case study as part of a group therefore meets the criteria for maximising learning - students personally experience the issue by researching the case, and then discussing the issues with their colleagues. And as case studies involve research of real companies (using annual reports, analysts' briefings and interviews with key personnel) rather than abstract research for something such as a theory-based assignment, students are able to actively engage with the material far more easily. This engagement, along with the natural complexity of multi-dimensional cases ensures that students are able to build their own mental models regarding the operation of different frameworks presented to them during the course - which is critical for effective learning (Nadkarni, 2003). As knowledge tends to be constructed rather than received as 'useable knowledge' any teaching approach that moves away from telling students facts and allows them to construct knowledge for themselves will be especially effective.

In addition, case writing involves a degree of reflection - a vital element in developing critical thinking (Rosier, 2002). Students firstly need to reflect upon the seminars through the course and the various readings as part of the process of categorising the various data acquired in the case writing process. They then need to reflect upon how the different elements of the case can be pulled together to create a story that leads the reader through critical pieces of information that underpin the case. Hence, we believe that case writing is able to encourage open-minded, reflective, critical and active learning.

In summary, case writing activities are certainly suitable for adult learners and they are likely to be particularly powerful in respect of introducing the complexity and systemic nature of many business scenarios. Theoretically, case writing allows students to achieve all six of Bloom's (1956) Educational Objectives - knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Perhaps most importantly, writing case studies helps meet the higher order objectives relative to simple case analysis. That is, application, analysis and synthesis are fundamental elements in the process of writing a case study (Bailey et al., 2005). The most sophisticated objective of evaluation is also achieved through the successful integration of the case study with the subsequent answer guide.

Where problems arise

Our teaching at the MBA level revolves around case-based teaching. Thus most of our students have been exposed to numerous cases (both in our unit and others) meaning that they generally understand what a typical case looks like. However, very few students have ever written a case and so as instructors we make a range of resources available - most especially our time. Nevertheless, the most successful support will occur when it is directed at areas which have previously proved to be problematic. In this regard, we often discuss these issues with the class as the most common problems with student-written cases:

The results of students writing case studies

Almost universally the response that we receive from this assignment is extremely positive. It is hard work, very time consuming and certainly challenging, but it also provides an excellent learning vehicle. Students that want to learn and really extend themselves love the task as it has the potential to bring together many of the frameworks that they had previously studied. Most importantly, the students see how these frameworks can or cannot operate and appreciate the complexities of the field of business strategy. For example, we received an email recently with the following comment.
The [case] work with CASA was particularly rewarding as their reaction gave me confidence that I have a marketable asset. All in all, a very rewarding experience - thanks very much.
Quantitatively we compared student ratings of the course assessment across eight different classes. The first four classes ran with the major assessment item being a simulation and the other four classes used student-led case writing as the major assignment (the simulation was dropped in 2006 for a variety of reasons). To ensure consistency, the instructor was the same for all eight classes and the content (including many of the cases) and other key issues remained consistent across the sample.

Feedback was received through the University's student evaluation system which asked all students to rank a range of items on a nine point Likert scale. Where the simulation formed the principal assessment the average score received for the assessment item in the survey was 7.4, 7.5, 7.8, 7.2 (out of 9). In comparison, for the classes that were run with the student-led case as the primary assessment, the relevant scores were 8.1, 8.3, 8.7 and 8.6. No standard deviations or other statistics were produced by the appropriate department at the University.

Finally it is worth noting that 12 of our students' cases have subsequently been published and their work is now being used at different universities in Australia, New Zealand, as well as some Asian countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Conclusion

When we first set our students the task of writing their own teaching cases, we had two objectives. Firstly, we wanted to increase the bank of cases we had at our disposal. In addition, we were also interested in building upon the learning benefits that one of the authors had experienced when he had previously experimented with the idea. Since we first introduced this approach, we have come to value this approach for its ability to provide learning outcomes superior to all of our other items of assessment. It is only now that we have reflected upon our experiences in using this technique in concert with the education literature that we have come to appreciate the true benefits of getting students to write their own cases.

For us, we have seen the student benefit in three main areas. The first is the students' ability to witness the true complexity of many business scenarios. Case writing requires a deeper understanding of the various elements of the case and how they link together than can be attained through more traditional case analysis. Second, students are exposed to the interrelationships of various frameworks that may not have been possible in the regular classes. In subjects where a systems perspective may be useful, the links between frameworks and different concepts only becomes clear when one is truly immersed in an intricate, multi-dimensional real world case. Thirdly, students experience the issues far more personally when they are intimately involved in collecting and analysing data for a case (particularly compared to the analysis required for an existing case study). Such learning experiences have a far more beneficial effect than rote learning based assessment items or situations where students do not actively engage with the material.

Certainly writing cases is difficult and therefore challenging. On the positive side however, it is through such activities that students are most effective in developing their own mental models as to how the theoretical ideas that they have been introduced to operate in the real world. To this effect, our students have been very positive about their experiences of writing cases and with the right guidance and support, case writing can be a very valuable addition to the existing repertoire of assessment that improves the potential for learning.

References

Bailey, J., Sass, M., Swiercz, P. M., Seal, C. & Kayes, D. C. (2005). Teaching with and through teams: Student-written, instructor-facilitated case writing and the signatory code. Journal of Management Education, 29(1), 39-59.

Barnes, L. B., Christensen, R. & Hansen, A. J. (1994). Teaching and the case method (3rd ed.), Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Biggs, J. B. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Vol 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: Longman.

Bonoma, T. V. (1989). Learning with cases. Harvard Business School: Reprint 9-589-080.

Hafler, J. P. (1991). Case writing: Case writers' perspectives. In D. Boud and G. Feletti (Eds.), The Challenge of problem based learning. London: Kogan Page, 150-158.

Hammond, J. S. (2002). Learning by the case method. Harvard Business School: Reprint 9-376-241.

Jennings, D. (1997). Researching and writing strategic management cases: A systems view. Management Decision, 35(2), 100-105.

Patti, C. H. (1992). What is a case? Proceedings of the 1992 Conference of the American Academy of Advertising.

Peloso, T. (1998). Business school teaching cases: Case writing as a student learning tool. Conference paper presented at Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy Conference, Dunedin, November 1998.

McCarthy, P. R. & McCarthy, H. M. (2006). When case studies are not enough: Integrating experiential learning into business curricula. Journal of Education for Business, 81(4), 201-204.

Michlitsch, J. F. & Sidle, M. W. (2002). Assessing student learning outcomes: A comparative study of techniques used in business school disciplines. Journal of Education for Business, 77(3), 125-130.

Nadkarni, S. (2003). Instructional methods and mental models of students: An empirical investigation. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2(4), 335-351.

Rosier, G. (2002). Using reflective reports to improve the case method. The Journal of Management Development, 21, 589-597.

Smith, G. (1987). The use and effectiveness of the case study method in management education: A critical review. Management Education and Development, 18(1), 51-61.

Authors: Peter Galvin, Curtin University of Technology
John Rice, University of Adelaide.
Email: Peter.Galvin@gsb.curtin.edu.au, john.rice@adelaide.edu.au

Please cite as: Galvin, P. & Rice, J. (2009). Moving beyond case analysis to writing case studies in teaching strategic management. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/galvin.html

Copyright 2009 Peter Galvin and John Rice. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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